The cloud 9, all sex, all the time stage of your relationship is over with an exclamation point. Perhaps you’re nearing your first anniversary, or exhausted all the time by the demands of parenthood and career. Maybe you’re empty nesters who are gamely if awkwardly adjusting to being alone again.
V-Day may be circled on the calendar (what else is an officially-sanctioned couple to do?), but poring over the goopy prose featured on Hallmark cards at the store, you drool like a foodaholic on a diet, thinking, “I remember when I felt this way.”
The love, like, and honor parts of the relationship are more or less intact - but the newness, that spiritual connect of “we are one” has been closeted away like summer clothes.
Romance when you share the same bathroom, know your partner’s four-star stories backwards, forwards and sideways, and are infinitely familiar with his or her grating habits (i.e.: eyebrow tweezing in bed) cannot be the intoxicating rush of yore. But it can morph into something ultimately more special, because it will be grounded in who the two of you really are, not on the idealized selves presented during the courtship period.
As I write in my book, THE COMPLETE MARRIAGE COUNSELOR: Relationship-Saving Advice from America’s Top 50 + Couples Therapists (Adams, 2010), www.marriedfaq.com, “Many couples exist in a sometimes barely tolerable status quo. Day to day, things seem passable but occasionally one or both secretly wishes, ‘Gee, I wish things were more dynamic between us.’ No growth, no pain – but no effort, no gain.”
Your challenge then is stop taking one another for granted, believing it is up to your partner to make changes, and start working together to revitalize the relationship.
Here are the guidelines. During the six weeks before V-Day rears its heart-shaped head, have daily 10-minute check-ins where you share together time. You could hold hands, share a joke, look at pictures of your last vacation, gaze at the full moon… It’s not the action that counts but that you are doing it together.
Now here are the exercises, which I have successfully utilized with couples in my practice. These involve weekly couple “meetings” and individual homework assignments.
A Proviso: This is not a substitute for therapy. It is suggested for couples who have a nurturing, caring rapport, not for those whose dynamic is extremely dysfunctional.
If a New York-based couple is interested in a few in-person sessions during this period which would be video-taped, please contact me. Anyone embarking on this Challenge please feel free to contact me with questions and feedback on how things are going.
At the first meeting share what qualities in your partner first attracted you, as well as cherished memories of the courtship. Resolve to create new sustaining memories together. Homework involves a mutual resolve to create new sustaining memories. Before the next weekly meeting each will have come up with a creative and fun couple activity.
CAN’T SHUT IT? TAPE IT
There's a statistic that couples only hear 38 % of what the other is saying. That is low! During sessions I teach couples specific exercises where they take turns speaking about a hot button issue. The designated listener is not allowed to interrupt. Then said designated listener repeats the gist of what he or she heard until the speaker feels understood. The couple then reverses roles.
Homework involves practicing the technique - this can involve the designated "listener" literally having tape over his or her mouth while the speaker is talking. Couples can’t go from being deadlocked on issues to problem solving until both people actually hear and thus understand the other's point of view.
THE C WORD:
During the meeting each person resolves to change a small (don’t shoot for the moon) behavior that grates on the other one’s nerves. These behaviors should be specific - i.e. one partner works hard to not drop clothes and various other items all over the house, while the other makes a genuine ongoing effort through the week to not criticize the other's lack of fashion sense.
Homework is not only working at your own task, but being supportive (i.e.: not derisive about a slip-up) about the partner’s attempts at change.
WHAT’S IT TRULY LIKE BEING MARRIED TO YOU?
Here’s a great empathy builder:
Instead of walking a mile in your partner’s moccasins, write down what you imagine it would be like to have yourself for a spouse. During the meeting share your findings. For example, your entry might go like this: “Every morning I have to listen to Leann complain about her weight and beseech, ‘You do still find me attractive, right?’ I’m dammed if I say, ‘Of course, you’re beautiful’ because Leann will think I’m condescending, but I’ll get hell if I say anything that sounds like I don’t find her attractive…”
Homework is whenever your partner triggers irritation, take a breath and remind yourself that you’re no picnic either.
This might feel scary at first but remember, no pain, no gain. Boring sex can be likened to paint by the numbers. You know what works… or think you know what works so keep repeating those few moves. But secretly perhaps you want to be ravished… or be the one to ravish. Whatever.
In this meeting you communicate what you like and don’t like. “I’ve never told you that when you go down on me, great as it is, it’d feel even better if your tongue was a little rougher.”
While we’re on the subject, during this meeting both partners should also reveal a sexual fantasy or wish.
Homework is not having sex, rather spending the week leaving suggestive messages on each other’s pillow, texting mash notes and other ways of saying: “This is what I want to do to you when we finally get together.”
At the end of the week the chastity comes to an end. Plan an evening somewhere special!
ASK NOT WHAT YOUR PARTNER CAN DO FOR YOU, BUT WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR PARTNER
Too often both partners are all about, ME, ME, ME. During this week you are forced to step out of your needs and into your partner’s. The happiest couples give without the need to get back.
These gestures needn’t be expensive. For example, you know your partner loves coffee in the morning so you bring it to him in bed. Or he sets the DVR for your favorite program.
At the end of the week each unveils a special Valentine's surprise.
Since this is the final meeting of this adventure, share what this experience has been like for the two of you… and brainstorm how to keep growing as a couple rather than slide back into same old/same old.